By James Ramos
HOUSTON (OSV News) – Thirty years ago, a group of Hispanic ministry leaders from around the U.S. gathered in Houston to discuss plans and initiatives to minister to the Hispanic and Latino Catholics living in the U.S.
This Oct. 10-13, the National Catholic Association of Diocesan Directors for Hispanic Ministry’s annual conference returned to Houston, gathering 250 Hispanic ministry leaders from 109 dioceses in the U.S. The national conference which took place at the tail end of this year’s Hispanic Heritage Month, observed Sept. 15-Oct. 15 also gathered some six bishops, several who lead U.S. bishops’ committees on Hispanic ministry and cultural diversity in the church.
The NCADDHM conference focused on the new “National Pastoral Plan for Hispanic/Latino Ministry,” a new document, approved by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in June 2023, that was developed through a process of consultation, discernment and leadership over multiple years.
The plan is a response to the Fifth National Encuentro of Hispanic/Latino Ministry (V Encuentro) process to help Hispanic laypeople and church leaders to meet the needs of the fastest growing demographic of the Catholic Church in the U.S.
At the Houston conference, Alejandro Aguilera-Titus, assistant director of USCCB’s Subcommittee for Hispanic Affairs and national coordinator for the V Encuentro, said the pastoral plan was a direct reflection and response to the “priorities, needs and aspirations” of Hispanic and Latino Catholics and has “the potential to transform the church in the United States.”
The Encuentro was a multiyear series of diocesan, regional and national meetings involving tens of thousands Hispanic and Latino leaders that culminated with a national gathering in Grapevine, Texas, in 2018, and identified key pastoral priorities for Latino Catholics.
Among the 10 priorities highlighted in the pastoral plan was the engagement of youth and young adults, vocations, faith formation, accompaniment of families, ministry to the marginalized, and immigration and policy advocacy.
During the conference, leaders heard from speakers, bishops and theologians who talked about the implications of the pastoral plan. In addition to daily Mass and presentations, participants broke into small groups at different times to share how the new plan would look like in their ministries and their regions.
For Olga Lucía Villar, executive director of the Miami-based Southeast Pastoral Institute – which coordinates and assists Hispanic ministries in 30 dioceses of the Southeastern United States – and one of many speakers at the conference, the new pastoral plan could not come soon enough.
She sees the pastoral plan as helping the church become more sensitive to the multicultural reality of the present Catholic Church in the U.S. “Especially at times where it is difficult, where there are more issues that might divide us racially, I think that the plan is placing us at a good point to continue healing the processes of reconciliation and focus on belonging and being sent off by Christ,” she told OSV News.
Villar saw a parallel between the Encuentro process and the more recent synod effort led by Pope Francis and said that “the plan walks us toward being a synodal church.”
Since the first Encuentro was held in 1972, Villar said, the efforts have been bringing the church together to reflect, dialogue and look together for ways to move forward as Hispanic Catholics in the U.S. That continues to be the case although the demographic landscape has changed.
Since 1972, the number of Hispanics in the U.S. has increased sevenfold, from about 9 million to 63.7 million, according to 2022 U.S. census data. And even though there have been reports of an increase in disaffiliation, recent demographic data showed that about 31 million Hispanics and Latinos identify as Catholic.
“We are talking more as we belong to this church. We’re not going anywhere. It’s our church too, and we want to be part of it,” said Villar. “And I think that the whole synod process, and the way that Pope Francis encourages (us) to move forward in that direction, we’ve been doing it in small steps throughout these 51 years.”
Auxiliary Bishop Arturo Cepeda of Detroit, chair of the U.S. bishops’ Committee on Cultural Diversity in the Church, said the new pastoral plan was the “fruit of many years of wisdom and consultation, experiences, ups and downs, of listening, collaboration, and so many fruits that the Encuentros have brought.”
He hopes that the pastoral plan will help equip ministry leaders and Hispanic and Latino parishioners to understand how to share their faith experiences with generations who will come after those in ministry today.
“We need to be able to share that and to know that we need to prepare our second, third generations,” Bishop Cepeda told OSV News. “We need to move forward. I think that it is a blessing. It is a challenge, yes. But we need to be aware of it.”
In Houston, Lázaro Contreras, director of the Office of Hispanic Ministry of the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston, said he looks forward to seeing how each parish and Catholic community in the region will uniquely implement the pastoral plan.
“With this pastoral plan, I hope that people are motivated and encouraged to make it their own,” he said. “Hispanic ministry is a work that we don’t do alone. It’s a work that we all do as one church. That is why these kinds of gatherings are a constant reminder that, in that work of pastoral ministry of accompaniment to Hispanic Catholics, is done by the whole church.”
That united movement forward is what excited Ignacio Rodriguez, NCADDHM president, especially during the conference, which began with an opening Mass celebrated by Cardinal Daniel N. DiNardo of Galveston-Houston Oct. 10.
While the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 slowed down much of the follow-up collaborations between the 3,000 Hispanic ministry leaders and clergy who met in Texas in 2018 for the V Encuentro, Rodriguez said the zeal and desire for the pastoral plan to take shape only grew.
Now that the pastoral plan is out in the hands of ministry leaders, Aguilera-Titus said that the plan emphasizes the importance of diversity and intercultural engagement and includes practical guidelines and resources for creating a sense of unity and belonging. He noted how a parish can thrive when it embraces diverse cultures present in a congregation through its shared Catholic faith.
“When they develop relationships with one another across cultures, they begin to develop a new sense of identity as a diverse, Catholic community,” Aguilera-Titus said. “The plan has a language that is inclusive, engaging and is meant for not only Hispanic/Latino Catholics, but for the entire church. We hope that it will bring new ways to bring the Gospel to life and create a more synodal and diverse church.”
That intercultural relationship is a key to evangelization, said Sister Elsa Narvaez, a member of the Missionary Sisters Servants of the Word and an evangelization consultant for the Hispanic communities in the Archdiocese of Boston.
“Many people might think (the pastoral plan) is just for Hispanics and Latinos, but it’s not. Our goal is to bring Christ to everyone. It’s like we are missionaries here in the U.S.,” she said, noting how U.S Catholics used to visit Latino and South American countries to evangelize.
“We help us now. We are here doing a mission and we know everyone is the same before God,” she continued, saying that the plan is not about sharing languages or cultures but about evangelization and strengthening of the faith. “It’s not because you’re Hispanic or you’re not Hispanic. We are one church, and we are here to love and serve each other and just to bring Jesus to everyone. That’s our goal. … It’s Jesus, that’s the goal.”
James Ramos writes for OSV News from Houston.